June 17, 2008

If you're a withdrawing college hoops junkie (or a recovering Mathlete), you can have way too much fun with something like the NCAA's annual attendance report.

No sport showcases the tribal passions of its fans as a selling point quite like college basketball, so it's interesting to look into which schools enjoy the most steadfast support. And the only quantitative measure of this intangible is the turnstile count.

But since the venue sizes across college basketball vary dramatically, raw attendance numbers are worthless for a comparative study. Instead, we've calculated the attendance rate -- defined as a school's average attendance divided by its home court's capacity -- for each of the 328 teams in Division I. (And, yes, we dutifully took into account those teams which split their home games between two buildings.)

These results were interesting enough: Eight BCS programs -- Louisville, Illinois, Kansas, Wisconsin, Duke, Michigan State, Maryland and Georgia Tech -- didn't play in front of a single empty seat in their home buildings during the '07-08 season, reporting perfect or better attendance rates.

But an examination of college basketball's most underappreciated programs -- teams with respectable records but underwhelming attendance numbers -- is much more intriguing. By examining the attendance rates of schools relative to their winning percentages, we've determined which teams won the most games in front of the least fans.

It's an unscientific study, but the results can prove revealing.

So, limiting the scope to the 73 teams in the Big Six conferences, here is SIOC's list of the most underappreciated programs in major college basketball this past season:

When John Beilein bolted for Michigan and the door closed on the most successful era in the program history since Jerry West, fans in Morgantown didn't know what to expect. Sure, Bob Huggins was an A-List hire. But a squad laden with unknowns seemed to undermine attendance in November and December, back when Joe Alexander was just an average joe. The numbers picked up once Big East play started, but only the Georgetown and Pittsburgh games sold out. Disappointing draws included just 5,630 fans for a Nov. 27 game against Maryland-Eastern Shore and 7,826 for a Big East clash with Rutgers on Feb. 14.

The Orange, national champions just five years ago, present an interesting case. Syracuse managed to rank third overall in raw attendance despite filling just over half the seats in their cavernous home building. Their traditionally cupcake-laden home schedule prior to Big East play also drags down the numbers, along with underwhelming crowds for three NIT games at the end of the season -- including a surprisingly sparse draw against Maryland (14,768). But while the Orange aren't pumping out 30,000-person crowds on a consistent basis like during the 'Melo days, student support remains strong in upstate New York, with the Orange never drawing fewer than 14,000 supporters.

The Kevin Durant hangover hurt this program's numbers more than anything else. With grounded expectations in Austin following the departure of last season's National Player of the Year, Texas averaged just 10,658 fans in four home games during November. But after the Longhorns opened the season with 11 consecutive victories -- including a win over No. 2 UCLA in Westwood -- the team climbed to No. 4 in the national polls and attendance returned to a more appropriate level. Sure, their 82.5 percent attendance rate doesn't look so bad on the surface, but the fifth-largest single-campus enrollment in the country knows it should have done better for a bona fide Final Four contender.

With a lofty preseason ranking, pronounced Final Four aspirations and a bundle of returning principals from the previous year's Sweet 16 team, Tennessee pumped in healthy crowds for most of the season and finished an impressive fourth in raw attendance -- no small accomplishment for a traditional football school. But despite Bruce Pearl's most flamboyant public relations efforts, the Southeastern Conference regular-season champions didn't come close to a sellout at Thompson-Boling Arena during what was easily the most successful season in program history.

The Cougars returned 11 of their top 12 scorers and entered the season with Final Four expectations, but the fans didn't turn out in full force until the Pac-10 schedule got underway. Wazzu averaged a ho-hum 6,234 spectators for seven non-conference games, just over half of the arena's capacity. Lowlights included non-conference meetings with Mississippi Valley State (2,509) and Air Force (3,585). Tony Bennett has done an admirable job restoring Washington State's basketball program to national relevance, but it would seem an on-campus hoops culture hasn't come as easily.

The Bruins returned everybody except Arron Afflalo from a team which made back-to-back Final Fours and added the nation's top-ranked incoming freshman in Kevin Love. But while fan support was roundly strong once conference play started, it should have been even better throughout the season. Mystifyingly, the Bruins managed just one true sellout in 18 games at Pauley Pavilion: for a 72-63 loss to crosstown rival Southern California. Is it possible the city's reputation for blase, casual sports fans extends to the collegiate level?

Boasting the third largest single-campus enrollment in the country behind Ohio State and Florida, Arizona State fans have no excuse. The Sun Devils won 21 games this year -- including wins against esteemed national programs like Arizona, Xavier and Stanford -- as Herb Sendek's rebuilding plan paid dividends ahead of schedule. But only 7,566 fans witnessed the program's biggest victory in recent memory: the 72-68 overtime victory over the seventh-ranked Cardinal on Feb. 14. Another disappointing draw included just 7,951 for the No. 17-ranked Musketeers on Dec. 15.

With just 7,000 seats to fill and a schedule littered with appealing ACC opponents, the Hurricanes shouldn't have much of a challenge on the marketing front. But Miami still sold out just two games -- North Carolina and Georgia Tech -- and couldn't fill the house for a 96-95 victory over then-No. 5 Duke. It's too bad: The surprising 'Canes won 23 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament despite getting picked to finish last in the conference. Attendance totals for early-season meetings with Morgan State (1,777) and Stetson (1,793) were embarassingly low.

Bob Knight's last Texas Tech team was far from his best, but the Red Raiders did manage victories over Gonzaga, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Texas. It's probably going overboard to suggest the tepid fan support could have possibly hastened Knight's departure, but the Lubbock school drew just 3,277 fans for the home opener against UC Riverside, an unusually sparse crowd for a BCS-conference team even against a cupcake opponent. For the team's marquee non-conference fixture against eventual Sweet 16 team Stanford -- a semi-home game at American Airlines Center in Dallas -- the building was two-thirds empty. Things did pick up for the Big 12 schedule, save for duds against Iowa State (6,274), Kansas State (7,742) and Baylor (7,914).

During the '06-07 season, the Hoyas broke 30 wins and advanced to the Final Four -- and still topped these rankings thanks to a lukewarm 56.5 percent attendance rate. This year, Georgetown enjoyed the second-largest attendance spike in Division I after Southern California -- jumping from 10,441 to 12,955 fans -- but still retained their title as the nation's most underappreciated program. It turns out not even one of the best teams in program history could pack an NBA arena located 20 minutes from campus. Georgetown fans turned out in droves for the high-profile games, but struggled to fill the lower level for Big East opponents South Florida (8,316) and St. John's (9,018).

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